Norquist Won't Oppose Gas Tax Extension; Cuomo Signs 'Complete Streets' Bill; Georgia Plans for Transportation Referenda

The chances that the federal gas tax, which is set to expire Sept. 30, could be extended improved a bit this week as Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, announced he won’t oppose an extension. Also this week, New York’s Governor gives a boost to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, Georgia prepares for next year’s regional referenda on transportation project funding, and Seattle gives a thumbs up to a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Plus, items of note on transportation spending as stimulus, tolling and public-private partnerships, high-speed rail, public transportation, the 2012 presidential election and mileage-based user fees.

Bloomberg News reports that Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, said such an extension wouldn’t violate a pledge signed by many members of Congress not to raise taxes, which could allow them to vote for it.

Approving an extension may not be a walk in the park, however. Ryan Holeywell of Governing magazine writes this week that “Transportation advocates fear that those seeking to make an anti-tax stand might use the gas tax as a political football.” The potential impact to states of a gas tax lapse could be devastating. The federal government would lose $100 million per day in revenue and have to stop reimbursing states for project costs. More than 1.2 million Americans involved in highway and transit projects could be put out of work if Congress lost gas tax revenues for an extended period of time, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

A New York Times editorial this week argues in favor of an extension with the warning that allowing the gas tax to expire “would bankrupt the already stressed Highway Trust Fund, with devastating effects on the country’s highways, bridges, mass transit systems and the economy as a whole.” The editorial goes on to say that “if anything, the tax should rise to maintain a system that constantly needs upkeep—the backlog of bridges needing repair is estimated at $72 billion—to create jobs, and to encourage drivers to buy more fuel-efficient cars.” Moderates from both parties, the editorial notes, have recommended increases in the tax ranging from 15-cents-per-gallon up to $1.

Time magazine also weighs in this week on “Why Dropping the Gas Tax Would Be a Disaster.” “Couldn’t states just step in and replace the federal gas tax with higher state levees on fuel?” writes Time’s Bryan Walsh. “Technically they could, but given the atrocious fiscal state of the states—and the fact that they can’t run deficits—the temptation would be strong to shift the funds from gas taxes to other uses. And because of population and density, the amount of money that each state could raise from gas taxes would differ widely, which would hurt large but lightly populated states far from the coasts that would earn little in the way of taxes but need to maintain miles of roads.” [As an aside, the Oklahoma state Supreme Court this week heard arguments on the constitutionality of legislation passed this year that authorizes the transfer of $101.7 million in state fuel tax revenue from the Transportation Department to the state treasurer’s office for use by agencies not involved in road and bridge construction, The Oklahoman newspaper reports].

Dan Vock of Stateline has more about the gas tax extension and upcoming efforts to pass a new federal transportation authorization bill (the latest extension of the previous legislation, known as SAFETEA-LU, also expires next month and Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer said this week she'll propose a new four-month extension when Congress returns). Vock quotes AASHTO’s Jack Basso on the importance of a national transportation plan to keep the nation’s commerce flowing smoothly. “The vast majority of freight, for example, travels on the highways. And the Interstate highway system, (Basso) says, requires good roads through sparsely populated states that would not be able to pay for that type of infrastructure on their own.”

There is new evidence of the struggle that states are already facing in transportation. After an article in The (Charleston) Post and Courier revealed serious budget woes at the South Carolina Department of Transportation, the agency was forced to request an advance of $52 million in speeded up highway construction reimbursements from the federal government. The request was approved Wednesday, the newspaper reported. Construction during the peak season has been outstripping the agency’s ability to pay contractors for their work within the typical 30-day window. That’s being blamed on a number of projects finishing ahead of schedule and the diminishing buying power of the state gas tax, which is the fourth lowest in the nation at 16 cents-per-gallon. The agency will now defer $24 million in construction projects this month and next to catch up on late payments, The Post and Courier said.

States did receive some good news this week with the announcement that the U.S. DOT is awarding another $417.3 million in highway-related grants. The money comes from 14 separate grant programs overseen by the Federal Highway Administration under SAFETEA-LU that are in addition to the funds allocated to states on a formula basis. The federal government is rushing to push out extra dollars for transportation ahead of the end of the 2011 fiscal year next month.

Stimulus Spending for Transportation

As President Obama renewed his call in recent days for a new round of infrastructure spending to help revive the economy, the Department of Transportation announced that payments to states for completed transportation projects funded by 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) have reached $30.4 billion as of August 5, while dollars obligated topped $46 billion for the first time. ARRA provided $48.1 billion for infrastructure projects.

But, in a harshly worded opinion piece on financial news site The Street.com this week, guest contributor Jeff Nielson writes that it’s like that Recovery Act infrastructure spending never happened because between 2007 and 2011, the ranking of the United States for the quality of its infrastructure fell from sixth in the world to 16th.

“Keep in mind that building infrastructure is a slow, long-term commitment,” Nielson writes. “Thus, being able to fall ten places in this ranking in a mere four years is a mind-numbing demonstration of negligence and mismanagement. To suffer a plunge of this magnitude while claiming to be focusing on infrastructure investment is an indictment of the saturation level of deceit of this government. Obviously, it’s only a matter of time until more U.S. bridges start falling down.”

Reuters had a recent analysis of the nation’s precipitous fall in the infrastructure rankings and how neglected projects are already impacting the nation’s economy.

“A prime example of this neglect is the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River,” reports Reuters’ Jason Lange. “It worked well when it opened in 1963. Now it handles twice the traffic it was designed to support. Gridlock often stretches for a mile beneath a thick haze of smog … UPS trucks avoid the bridge as much as possible but that adds time to its routes, pushing up costs.”

Lange goes on to note that engineers are working on designing a new river crossing to replace the Brent Spence but the funding for its construction is not yet secured.

According to a new survey from the HNTB Corporation, 54 percent of Americans are bothered by poor conditions on the nation’s roads and 50 percent say highways are too congested. More than seven in 10 Americans said interstate highway funding decisions should be made at the local or state level, according to the survey. More than half of those surveyed said they would prefer taxes and highway tolls go to long-term interstate highway upgrades, such as those creating truck-only lanes or high-occupancy lanes, rather than short-term highway maintenance projects. The Recovery Act received criticism in some circles for its focus on funding many maintenance projects because they were the most “shovel-ready.”

Pedestrian & Bike Infrastructure

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation this week that will require state, local and county agencies to consider things like pedestrian walkways, bike lanes and sidewalks when they're designing road projects that receive state or federal funding. The state joins 24 other states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. with “complete streets” legislation on the books. A listing of how those state statutes break down can be found on the National Complete Streets Coalition website here.

But just as the Governor was signing the legislation, The New York Times reported on how the Orlando-Kissimmee area of Florida has become the most dangerous metro region in the country for pedestrians. The region is making an effort to address the issue by building miles of sidewalks, installing audible pedestrian signals, introducing traffic-slowing measures, creating new overpasses and the like. The City Fix blog also reported recently on how pedestrian infrastructure is essential to improving the safety of roads worldwide. The group Transportation for America has more as well, here.

Meanwhile, there are efforts underway to try to save funding for the federal Safe Routes to School program in the next authorization bill, Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported this week. When House Republicans released an outline of their authorization bill recently, it did not include dedicated funding for biking and walking infrastructure programs.

The Environmental Protection Agency this month issued a guide to help transportation agencies incorporate environmental, economic and social sustainability into transportation decision-making through the use of performance measures. Among the performance measures described are: bicycle and pedestrian mode share, bicycle and pedestrian activity and safety, and bicycle and pedestrian level of service.

Georgia Plans for Regional Transportation Votes

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that five mayors and county commissioners from across the Atlanta region, came to agreement on a draft list of $6.14 billion in transportation projects that would be built if voters approve a 1 percent sales tax to pay for them in a referendum next year (other regions around the state will vote on their own lists of projects as well). A final draft must be approved by October 15.

The Athens Banner-Herald meanwhile reports that the Georgia Chamber of Commerce has hired a “bipartisan team of top-flight political consultants” to try to convince voters to approve the tax. When the vote will be held is still in question. Now scheduled for the day of the Georgia primary in July of next year, the vote could be moved to the general election in November, which typically brings out more voters and could potentially improve the chances of success for the referenda. In a special session this week, Georgia lawmakers are considering legislation favored by Gov. Nathan Deal to move the vote. Georgia tea party leaders say they don’t support the move unless lawmakers mandate that all local tax votes must take place during the fall general election, the Journal-Constitution reported. Tea party officials are opposing the regional votes in general for a number of reasons, according to the newspaper’s Jay Bookman: because they fear such regional initiatives might replace local government, because they oppose using the tax to build transit projects that won’t support themselves entirely through the fare box, and simply because the regional tax is a tax.

The special legislative session in Georgia will also determine whether a freeze on the state’s gas tax will be extended through the end of the year. Deal issued an executive order in June halting an automatic 1.6 cents a gallon increase linked to rising fuel prices.

Seattle Tunnel Wins Approval

Speaking of referenda, Seattle voters Tuesday endorsed the state’s plan to build a tunnel in place of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carries 110,000 vehicles per day and is vulnerable to earthquakes. Once the project’s environmental review is completed most likely later this month, the state department of transportation can authorize its contractor to start final design and construction, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports.

The tunnel was opposed by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and environmental groups who believed a surface-transit option would have been less expensive. The deep-bore tunnel project is expected to cost $1.9 billion.

And Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt writes that “this exorbitantly expensive highway project will retrench car dependence in Seattle while exhausting resources that could be used to advance environmentally and financially sustainable solutions like better transit and cycling amenities.”

There is also news this week about another big transportation project in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregonian newspaper recently looked at whether a new “Columbia River Crossing Could Be a Casualty of the Federal Budget Crunch.” I wrote about the CRC project and its importance to freight mobility in the latest issue of Capitol Ideas.

Other News of Note

Tolling & Public-Private Partnerships

  • Rhode Island officials have announced details of their application to the Federal Highway Administration to approve tolling on I-95 near Connecticut to fund improvements to the road. Congress generally prohibits states to add tolls to roads built using federal money unless they receive special permission under a pilot program. Rhode Island is seeking to join Virginia and Missouri, the only two states that have gotten permission to add tolls. A request by Pennsylvania to toll I-80 was rejected by FHWA mainly because state officials had proposed using toll revenues to fund other transportation projects around the state. Tollroads News and WPRI, Providence have more on Rhode Island’s request.
  • The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported last week on Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s plans to move forward with leasing the Ohio Turnpike. The newspaper looked at what kind of agreement the state is seeking and what their prospects are for getting it.

High-Speed Rail

Public Transportation

A new survey from the American Public Transportation Association describes the toll the recession has taken on transit agencies. APTA reports that 51 percent of transit agencies have either raised fares or reduced service since last year and 79 percent said they are planning to or considering doing so in the near future. Moreover, 40 percent of agencies that have made cuts still face budget shortfalls in the coming year.

2012 Election

The Houston Chronicle has an analysis of Texas Gov. (and Republican Presidential Candidate) Rick Perry’s record on transportation.

Mileage-Based User Fees

The Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota has a new report out entitled “From Fuel Taxes to Mileage-Based User Fees: Rationale, Technology and Transitional Issues.”